I know I’m dating myself, but I can remember growing up as a teenager before we had cell phones and other mobile devices. On family trips, we had to…talk to each other. Play games. Read books. Listen to music. Think.
In case you think I’m being nostalgic, I’m not. A childhood before cell phones and social media was filled with, well, boredom. While I can certainly remember some of the highlights of our family trips- whether they were at the beach, historical sites, or museums, I also remember insufferably long days in the backseat of a car staring at fields of nothing and being completely bored out of my mind.
On a recent flight across the country, the plane’s WiFi was down for over an hour. It was terrible! I can’t count how many times I checked the settings, disconnected, and reconnected to see if it was working yet. After at least twenty minutes, I gave up and realized that without the internet or a book in my carry-on, I had to just sit there. All by myself; with myself. Not being a napper, either, it was particularly uncomfortable to be in a forced timeout. But without trying or even noticing, my mind slipped into a different mode. A different space, if you will. I started to daydream. Different scenarios went through my mind- flashbacks, fictional scenes, and make-believe conversations with people in my life. It was almost like what you sometimes see on movies or shows when they go into someone’s thoughts, memories, and
Something special can happen when we give our brains a break from distractions.
At the start of last summer, I wrote about the science of boredom and its potential benefits. This summer, I’m more mindful than ever about the importance of creating intentional time to reflect, think, confront ourselves, imagine the future, rehash the past, and learn to sit with ourselves. I think it’s actually a critical life skill, a habit to cultivate.
I don’t want my kids to have to run to entertainment to escape their own thoughts. I want them to learn to be comfortable with themselves, even if their thoughts lead to worry, rumination, or anxiety. Our culture is filled with invitations to escape reality and manipulate ourselves to relieve discomfort. But that path is destined for shallowness, not depth, creativity, connection, or mental health.
There’s a threshold inside every boring moment that’s important to pay attention to. While I sat on the plane, those first few minutes were really uncomfortable for me. I felt irritated, annoyed, and a bit anxious. Since I had no other option, I was forced to sit in it until, at last, I broke through that threshold and found meaning on the other side. We hear our kids complain about feeling bored and instantly take it on as our responsibility and problem to solve. Typically, they act out during that time, too. They start rummaging through the fridge, looking for a quick fix. They get annoying to their siblings and start bickering. They complain to you and say potentially triggering things like, “We never do anything fun,” or, “this summer sucks”.
But that’s our moment to remember the threshold of boredom. If you can resist the urge to fix the problem and remember the good parts on the other side of the threshold, you’ll be giving your kids a gift that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
For further reading, explore my article on the Existential Vacuum that we sometimes feel when we’re bored. Boredom also has a danger attached- especially in relation to harmful substance use. Learn more here.
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
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